Sunday, September 13, 2009

Time to turn our centres inside out!

Now in SEQ, there is a new regional plan in place and most local governments are in the process of reviewing their planning schemes, so it seems to me that the timing is perfect to start turning our centres inside out. There is a lot of high-level policy direction that is saying the right things and the TOD principles that were sorely needed are now locked in, so now the challenge is there for Local Government to step up and start delivering. The ULDA is also well placed at this point to start getting some quality centres on the ground in the Urban Development Areas so that the Government can get decent exemplars up (Do as we do, rather than do as we say!).

I must say that it is still rather depressing looking at the types of controls present in most SEQ planning schemes when it comes to centres- basically a set of well intentioned statements undermined by Codes whose Acceptable Solutions are anything but! Basically, at the detail level, we continue to get it very, very wrong, with the Codes seeming to be more concerned with preserving the status quo, than matching the overall strategic direction of the planning schemes and the SEQ Regional Plan. Carparks are still at the front property alignment, pretending not to be seen behind pathetic little strips of landscaping; buildings are to the side and the rear to maximise the visibility of the carpark so that pedestrians have to brave the killing fields in order to access the services; each site turns inwards on itself in a perpetuation of the worst aspects of 1960's/70's cell-theory design (synergy anyone?) and token cafe's go alfresco to soak up the carpark ambience!

Efforts towards mixed use are still by exception, rather than the rule, because who wants to live above a carpark? Overall, space is poorly defined and poorly contained, leaving people at mercy to the elements and the radiant heat from the asphalt. No amount of improvement program window-dressing can change the fundamentals, unless some serious incentives are put in place to encourage redevelopment. I must say that my time in Sydney has shown me that the floorspace yields in Brisbane and SEQ generally are pathetically low, so low that any progress towards a people-friendly, sustainable, and mixed use future for our centres cannot happen without breaking the current rules. Brisbane particularly has a vertiginous fear of heights, a collective nosebleed seems to set in above two storeys, which means that any sort of consolidation is more or less doomed at the outset, unless a few 'brave decisions' are taken in this regard. Short and squat needs to be replaced by tall(er) and slender (relatively).

This is the point when I tend to start banging on about macro-blocks: the urban units about a half-mile (800m) or so on each edge, which can form a pedestrian-friendly urban form, with mixed use activity on the busier roads that form the outer edges, with quieter, residential interiors. Basically, ground zero at the meeting of 4 such macro-blocks is where your centre lies- with this key corner being the node which requires reinforcement to ensure prominence, of both form and activity. It is the antithesis of the mid-20th Century cell/neighbourhood unit, as it looks outward, rather than inwards, and states firmly that passing trade (be it on foot, by transit, or even car) is welcome, but that parking is at the back, with the services. Of course, such a model is more or less limited to the pre-1960's parts of town, as the fundamental urban structure is already in place and can be tweaked relatively easily (physically easily, as opposed to politically), however once the cell-theory cancer set in, well, more invasive surgery would be required.

A brief review of where these macro-blocks can be identified has a spooky congruence with Brisbane's old tram network... Is it that everything old is new once more, and could this be returning dear old Brissie to it's original trajectory?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How to make density work in suburban South East Queensland.

We're in a challenging period in South East Queensland, continued high population growth and the heavily-sprawl dependent pattern of existing development have combined to produce rapidly decreasing housing affordability as well as the double-whammy of traffic congestion and ever increasing petrol prices. You can also add in the 'affluenza' component here- ever bigger houses with more unused rooms for fewer people, more people buying gas-guzzling 4WD and large V8/V6 sedans, in which the back seats are forever empty. That's before we even start on the environmental and social consequences of this collective lifestyle.

Here's a brief overview of the situation:

Basic Facts:
1. Population is increasing rapidly- at least an extra 1 million people in 20 years.
2. Household occupancy is declining- more one and two-person households and fewer households with children than at any time in our history
3. Affordability is declining- Average wage cannot afford average mortgage.
4. Peak oil is already having an impact as petrol prices will continue to increase in Australia in the long run (as Australia imports greater proportion of it’s oil requirements).
5. The most inefficient way to move a person around in terms of the space they occupy whilst travelling is to put them in a car. Most cars have only one person in them, meaning that person occupies the lane space of the car, and half of the distance before and after them. Whilst travelling at 60 km/hr this represents nearly 40 metres in total, or approximately 120 square metres of road space.
6. You cannot build your way out of traffic congestion- increased capacity induces traffic demand to new capacity levels ahead of actual demand. Tolls cannot afford to pay for it, and governments can’t afford to borrow constantly to win traffic battles whilst losing the transport war.
7. Average house sizes for new dwellings have near doubled in terms of square metres since the 1970's- basic 3 bedroom, one bathroom houses are now the exception rather than the rule in new estates.
8. The current town planning arrangements, which in many cases are continuations of earlier plans lock up the greatest proportion of urban land in single-dwelling residential zones, creating an artificial shortage of residential land in urban areas.
9. Australian cities are amongst the lowest-density in the world, which makes public transport unviable, increases car dependence, increases the ecological footprint of each household (further to travel to meet daily needs, nothing within 5 minute walk of most houses, except more houses and maybe a park).

Incentives to achieve sustainable suburban densities by infilling existing low density sprawl can include:

1. Allow a basic dual-occupancy provision on modal lot size above an appropriate (deemed-to-comply) size.
2. For attached housing and units, work out your typologies, define optimal allotment sizes (for deemed-to comply), look to establish beneficial density bonuses for simple amalgamations: (1-2 lots, 2-3 lots, 2-4 lots, 3-4 lots etc). Measure density in persons per hectare- expressed as dwellings based on long term occupancy trends for dwelling types, rather than straight dwellings per hectare provisions.
3. Set accessibility benchmarks for density based on optimal ultimate service quality and frequency. For example:
a. within 200m of high frequency bus-service
b. 200m of a major public facility, such as an educational or health facility with a high employment (or 300m actual walking distance, if the lesser)
c. 400m of a neighbourhood centre with a high frequency bus service (or 500m actual walking distance, if the lesser)
d. 800m of a rail station or a Regional Activity Centre (or 1km actual walking distance, if the lesser).
4. Zone in advance of demand to allow site consolidation to occur, and to allow for sudden changes in demand (i.e. provide flexibility to market).
5. Base infrastructure investment on long-term financing with contributions reflecting this.
6. Do not expect to recoup all infrastructure costs directly, but examine the potential for increases in area-based rate income resulting from the creation of new titles, etc.
7. Take advantage of under-utilised road space when considering total parking demand- not every dwelling needs a parking space entitlement. Many older areas in Australian cities have many of these cottages and apartments, and still function.
8. Encourage pedestrian-friendly street development- wherever possible create rear lane access and ‘no back fences to the public domain’. The order of consideration within walkable radii of activity centres and transit is:
a. Pedestrians and cyclists
b. Transit passengers
c. Private vehicles (including parking).
This means no internalised developments- everything looks outwards to the street (not into neighbouring properties- especially backyards).
Where fronting access-restricted roads, service roads should be established at appropriate intervals, and property vehicle access on secondary frontages- make our main roads boulevards and not traffic-sewers.

Hopefully the new generation of town plans would start to incorporate these provisions that could make widespread consolidation of SEQ suburbs more palatable. Let's face it, current codes and outcomes are of a nature that would almost ensure opposition to increasing density, who in their right mind would want development typified by existing codes next door to them?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

It's all so easy, really

Poor Mr Bernard Salt, it is in some ways sad that an otherwise intelligent and perceptive demographic analyst can so readily swallow the snake oil peddled by Wendell Cox and the other members of the Demographica flat earth society of town planning-deniers (Australian March 23 2006). It’s all so simple really; those nasty planners all hate families and want to stop them buying cheap homes way, way out in the suburbs, where everybody really wants to live so they can commute their life away, two hours a day forever and ever amen. If there was unlimited land available for subdivision in all our cities then house and land packages like mum and dad had back in the golden years of the 1960’s would all be cheap again, backyard cricket would be compulsory, and we could all live happily ever after.

However the simplistic nature of this argument is revealed when you examine the basis on which this argument is made. The Demographica approach to how planning should be undertaken is to divide the median house price in a given city by the median income and the lower the ratio the more affordable housing is in that city. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that the land use planning approach that produces the lowest ratio is the ‘best’ and ignores all the particular circumstances of each city faces at it attempts to manage growth. Invariably, this approach maintains the fiction that urban growth boundaries are sole reason that cities which have them are more expensive to live in than cities that don’t. Growth boundaries have become the dastardly mechanism by which these evil family-hating planners use to drive up the cost of housing for ordinary persons and if they all got out of the way and let the market decide, the people in those cities would all be better off, better housed and ‘relaxed and comfortable’.

The reason they can carp on about it is, unlike planners, Bernard and company don’t have to worry about what the wider consequences of unlimited land release are, whether it be air quality so poor that respiratory illness drives up health care costs from endless gridlocked toll-roads, the loss of productive farm land, habitat destruction, and the pesky fact that once you build a new suburb, you then have to maintain it and supply it with all of the services that the people require forever and a day thereon. Anything that doesn’t neatly fit into the formula of one number (median house price) divided by another number (median income) is (in econo-speak) an ‘externality’ or in plain English, someone else’s (i.e. the taxpayer’s) problem.
There has been an unprecedented rise in the cost of housing in Australia over the last decade or so, nobody’s denying that for a moment. But growing cities is a complex, time consuming and expensive business, requiring careful evaluation of a wide range of community concerns and long term needs and simple measures and single indicators, such as housing cost are only a small (but important) part of a wider picture.

The preferred entry-level dwelling that Mr Salt alluded to, the 150sqm house on a 600sqm lot leads to an overall outcome of between 12- 13 dwellings per hectare, net (or about 35-40 persons/hectare). When multiplied out over the thousands of new dwellings required in a large, growing city, that equals a lot of hectares, most of which are currently used for other purposes and which currently lack urban services.

This brings us to the vexed question of infrastructure. It is essential, expensive, and there is only so much of it that a given society is able to build at any one time due to the technical, physical and financial resources available to it at any particular time. To properly plan for infrastructure, long lead times of many years are required and only so many development fronts can be serviced at any given time. Inevitably, there is a lag between when growth happens and when demand for the infrastructure (be it roads, rail, new schools, hospital beds or any other of the essential things a city needs) can be satisfied. Then there is the willingness (or otherwise) of residents (new and existing) in a given city to fund the provision of infrastructure to new suburbs (or even redevelopment areas) from rates, taxes, tolls or levies.

In the example above, that’s 12-13 households worth of future rate or tax income to fund the ongoing maintenance of the urban infrastructure and the necessary services that hectare of new urban land (including for example, around 150-200 linear metres of roads, footpaths, water and sewer pipes, street trees, and 1000sqm of park as well as wider services and roads, rail etc). Obviously, the tax and rate revenue from those households cannot pay for these costs exclusively. The rest of the money has to come from somewhere (be it taxes on existing residents, business or other broad-based charges). The cold, hard facts are that fringe development is always subsidised (often indirectly) and as a result, cities can only grow at the rate and in the manner that they can afford to; and that once they reach a certain size (based on their own locational characteristics), fringe growth becomes prohibitively expensive.

Over the past decade or so, governments (and those whose taxes fund them) have become increasingly unwilling to pay for new infrastructure to service population growth and particularly for infrastructure for new areas on the urban fringe than they have in decades gone bye. This has led to an increased reliance on the use of up-front infrastructure charges which invariably get passed on to the homebuyer. These charges have escalated in recent years, especially in Sydney, where a scarcity of suitable land (induced or otherwise) has escalated raw land values considerably, which in turn drives up the cost of new infrastructure as well as housing.

The reasons for high raw land costs are manifold, and are always linked to the specific circumstances of a particular city. The Demographica approach assumes each city exists on its own tabla rasa with nothing to stop the ever outwards expansion of a city except its eventual collision with another such city on a similar growth trajectory. In reality there are all manner of physical, environmental, scenic and land use constraints that exclude (either temporarily or permanently) land from further development for urban purposes. These constraints are usually decided by way of broad public consensus as being essential for the greater common good of society and therefore are upheld as being worthy of protection from individual economic want (acting collectively or otherwise). They include matters such as floodplains, natural hazard areas, steep land and mountain ranges, natural features and habitats, with and other areas distinguishing characteristics that make them necessary to ensure a healthy, safe and liveable environment.

The second group of factors that need consideration are the consequences of past decisions by people that remove areas from urban expansion, such as: water catchments, rural production areas (fertile and productive land), national parks, forestry reserves, areas of cultural heritage significance, and areas that have become unusable owing to previous activities that have rendered them either contaminated or unstable. All these matters have the effect of removing large portions of the urban fringe from development, and there is unlikely to be widespread community support for reversing most of the decisions that did so, regardless of rising home costs.
Then there is the effect of previous subdivision policies in rural areas (or in some areas, the lack of them). Brisbane and Sydney particularly are burdened with a lot of small rural and rural-residential subdivisions in urban fringe areas. Many areas lack large, easy to develop parcels and potential developers often have to assemble sites from numerous small (1-10 hectare) lots, which is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process. The additional cost of land assembly inevitably gets passed on to the future home-buyer, and the delays experienced in getting numerous individual land owners to sign on the dotted line can often exacerbate supply shortages.

So, in effect, instead of a tabla rasa waiting only for someone to ‘turn on the tap’ and satiate our housing wants, we have often a limited set of choices, with no guarantees (other than conflict) when it comes to managing growth in our cities. In Western Sydney particularly, there has been widespread community anger from both new residents upset over infrastructure lags of up to 10 years and the inconvenience and costs that it imposes on them, and from residents in existing areas sick of their taxes being used to pay for it and putting up with the traffic heading through their suburbs to the city from the fringe. Increasingly, as shown in both the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy and the South East Queensland Regional Plan, and other strategies elsewhere, the community expectation is that infrastructure is delivered concurrently with the new growth, with budgets running into the billions of dollars.
Whilst it always seems attractive in the short term to release more land and build a few extra houses, the reality is that we really can’t afford to do so. That is the meaning behind the growth boundary lines- it is the land that can be realistically developed in the 20-30 year horizon without breaking State budgets- no more, no less. All cities are not created equal; some are more expensive and difficult to grow than others, and if the demand for fringe housing is greater than the collective ability and will to provide, then prices will inevitably rise and other housing choices may need to be made. If necessity is the mother of invention, then it can certainly count urban consolidation and ‘smart growth’ as among it’s brighter offspring. If the backyard cricket match has to relocate to the local park, then it is a relatively small price to pay for being able to get home before dark and actually have a game in the first place; in a city where such outdoor activity doesn’t automatically lead to an episode on the ventillator.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Phenomenon of ‘Urban Splatter’

Synthetic polymer paint on linen
75.5cm x 100.5cm
Sue Beyer

‘Urban Splatter’ is a term representing the pattern of urban development that results from the actions of a variety of developers creating individual Greenfield subdivisions on multiple unrelated development fronts, which leave tracts of undeveloped land between subdivisions, even within individual development fronts. It is a product of market-driven approaches to the urbanisation of land on the fringes of cities in developed nations and is especially prevalent in jurisdictions where there is a lack of a strong co-ordinating framework, both at the metropolitan level (where numerous development fronts may be active simultaneously) and at the local/sub-regional structure planning level, where a ‘patchwork quilt’ effect of developed and undeveloped parcels can result from the development decisions of individual landholders.

It is important to note that urban splatter can still result within cities that have a relatively strong metropolitan or sub-regional structure planning framework if decisions on the development of land parcels within Greenfield development fronts are not sufficiently coordinated. This is the most visible representation of urban splatter as one passing through such areas is confronted by a mosaic of developed housing estates and land that is dormant, still under agricultural use or (increasingly) in large lot residential use.

Although related and to the more widely used term urban sprawl an extent interchangeable with it, the key distinction between the two is that the latter results in a fairly continuous fabric of developed land with few breaks in the urban pattern, which forms the outcome of deliberate policy directions regarding Greenfield residential development, wheras the former is more reflective of individual market decisions.

Both urban sprawl and urban splatter outcomes can be seen in the land release strategies employed by various State Governments in Australia (such as New South Wales), where consolidated precincts of land are ‘released’ by the relevant Minister as a precursor to any rezoning action by the relevant local government or development authority. Similar programs are also found in Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and, belatedly, Queensland (however there are important distinctions regarding the Queensland situation which I will discuss further below).

The sequential nature of land release programs such as the New South Wales Metropolitan Development Program generally ensure that isolated precincts of land are not developed for Greenfield residential subdivisions in advance of trunk infrastructure, producing a relatively continuous urban sprawl at the edges of Sydney at the metropolitan level. However, at the local level within the individual land release precincts, the urban splatter phenomenon can still be observed through the actions of individual developers, who assemble land parcels for development according to their success in identifying sites considered ‘prime’ for development and their ability to secure options for purchase with individual land owners.

This can lead to ‘cherry picking’ of land parcels (which are increasingly in fragmented, multiple ownerships on the fringes of Sydney, where relatively few large landholdings remain outside the existing development area), often as an unintended consequence of localised structure planning, due to developers avoiding purchase of lots with significant designations for open space or environmental purposes, so as to maximise their individual development yields. This can lead to isolated pockets of relatively unattractive land remaining undeveloped due to their high community infrastructure burden, leading to both late delivery of services and an urban splatter land use pattern that can persist for significant periods. The other consequence of these actions is on the cash flow of the infrastructure delivery agency (usually local Councils), who must wait to fully recoup their outlay, incurring interest charges in the meantime that place an increased debt burden on other ratepayers.

The regulatory framework in Queensland has particularly led itself to urban splatter outcomes on the fringes of developing areas as until the adoption of the South East Queensland Regional Plan 2005-2026 in 2005, there was no centralised regulation of the release of Greenfield land in the Greater Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba metropolitan areas. Although there as been some form of control in terms of the strategic frameworks contained in Local Government Planning Schemes and their expression in the zoning patterns (by manner of zones such as “Future Urban” or “Non Urban”, and their Integrated Planning Act equivalents), provisions to apply for rezoning (or latterly, for Preliminary Approval to Override the Planning Scheme under s.3.1.6 of the Integrated Planning and Assessment Act, 1997(IPA)) to bring forward the development of individual parcels or even entire precincts outside the development sequence expressed in the planning instruments relevant at the time.

In the past this was further compounded by a cultural patronage at the State Government level by widespread usage of Ministerial discretion to rezone land, whatever the view of the local authority on the matter. The consideration of rezoning applications from a ‘de novo’ perspectives by the Land and Environment Court has also tended to favour the party seeking development as it has often proved difficult for Councils to demonstrate that land was incapable of development or premature within the legislative or policy framework available to them at the time, where there was no strong tools available to sequence development (especially in the context of the 'no prohibition' land-use framework established by the IPA).

One of the most obvious expressions of this policy framework (or more specifically it’s non-expression) is the development of the suburb of Bellbowrie, which remains physically isolated from other urban areas in Brisbane some 30 years after it was first developed. At a more common level, developers today often seek to use the Preliminary Approval powers in the IPA to bring forward development of their parcels in advance of detailed planning by the local government authority.

Injudicious use of this power can exacerbate urban splatter, however it can also be used as a lever to trigger comprehensive structure planning of a precinct with funding from the development industry, under the supervision of the relevant authorities. This is proving valuable in the context of Councils that lack sufficient strategic planning resources to address all areas requiring structure planning within a market-responsive timeframe. A process such as this can now be successful in SEQ due to the context created by the SEQ Regional Plan, with the Urban footprint effectively limiting the outer reach of urban development, and the requirements for Local Growth Management Strategies (and their designation of Major Development Areas and Master Planning Areas), Priority Infrastructure Plans and the Benchmark Development Sequences contained within these documents providing the requisite discipline to ensure that out-of-sequence development is either strongly discouraged or at least carries the full cost of the additional servicing costs. However, as in NSW, the sequencing of individual developments within staged development land areas is still largely reactive to the market and developer’s ability to secure suitable stocks of land for development.

The challenge remains to ensure that the results at the local level of individual developments do not function in a counter productive manner to the intent of precinct structure plans and the wider regional outcomes (especially in relation to matters such as the integration of land use and transport). For it is the early, effective delivery of public transport to Greenfield areas in a form (and frequency) that encourages transit use in lieu of reliance on a second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) motor vehicle to address daily transport needs. This becomes next to impossible in urban splatter situations, due to the inability of the service providerto construct viable routes with partially constructed collector street systems and fragmented passenger catchments.

Un-coordinated development in a precinct by multiple actors also struggles to deliver housing choice and higher than lowest-market-common-denominator product or so called 'premium (McMansion/Waterfront/Golf Course estates) products and stand-alone retail centres, all of which work against delivering sustainable transport options and the establishment of a desirable community focal point as a unifying features. In fact many subdivision designs deliberately work against these principles in the quest to secure a market advantage over their competitors. This can often lead to each landholder trying to attract high-value retail and commercial uses to their holdings, contributing to retail oversupply and often to court action between developers in winner-takes all battles, to the detriment to securing the optimal planning outcome for the future residents of the area.

The wider costs of urban splatter to the community include the increased loss of ecosystems from the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and the increased exposure to edge effects degrading bushland on the fringe; the air pollution and global warming effects of increased vehicular kilometres travelled by new residents;the costs of under-utilised infrastructure, both (construction and maintenance) borne by the taxpayer, particularly the dilution of public sector spending leading to an increased portion of tax money being spent on the management of numerous, simultaneous projects; the spread of population growth straining the provision of human services, as service provision thresholds are reached later than in more targeted land release programs, leading to a decline in access to services.

In order to counter the effects of urban splatter, new release areas need to be of a scale to support:
  • the efficient delivery of the full range of human services;
  • retail, commercial and service trade employment opportunities to increase employment self containment;
  • a compact, consolidated urban precinct designed at a walkable scale that also reduce edge effect exposure at the urban boundary.
Within the new urban area, however, some degree of relaxation on matters such as vegetation retention and waterway setbacks and all of the other various single-issue policy considerations (such as acoustic mitigation and traffic management) may be required to ensure appropriate urban outcomes within the defined urbanprecinct. This means that care should be taken at the structure planning stage to avoid potential major environmental conflicts by placing major waterway corridors at the periphery of urban units, and locating neighbourhood focal points in the centre of the defined urban precincts, preferably on elevated (though not steep) sites so that they can serve the traditional high street function (both physically and conceptually).

The key matters to be addressed in order to achieve these outcomes are:
  • applying the right mix of policy settings in the relevant development code to achieve proper integration of land uses and built form ;
  • local coordination (whether formalised or in a cooperative sense) to ensure that development is achieved sequentially and logically within each individual precinct, and
  • that developer opportunism and holding out by individual owners does not disrupt the optimal development program.
This can be difficult to achieve within the system of property rights and expectations commonly found within Australian legal systems, where the power of planning authorities is often limited in the ability to purchase hold-outs or counter pre-emptive development applications once a precinct is released. In particular, the legal structures around just compensation for compulsory land acquisition is long-winded and expensive within most jurisdictions, leading to a reluctance of planning authorities to exercise powers that they have, due to the potential drain on scarce public resources, delays to the release of land and political friction caused by displacement of existing residents.

Greater co-operation between landowners, developers and planning authorities therefore offers the best solution to dealing with the challenges of urban splatter at the local scale. This means using inclusive techniques such as enquiry by design workshops and intensive (and early) stakeholder consultation, with a strong emphasis on common benefits and an end vision to focus participants and create momentum towards securing integrated planning outcomes. A delicate balancing act is required at the local structure planning stage to ensure that planning goals are are achieved without creating a distinct group of 'winners' and 'losers' within the precicnt landowners.

Although it remains an entrenched and pervasive form of urban fringe development, the negative effects of this development form can be countered, however it requires active intervention on the behalf of planning authorities, a willingness to compromise across single-issue jurisdictions to achieve common planning goals that emphasise place, and close and continual liaison with the relevant stakeholders throughout the development of both individual neighbourhood precincts and sub-regional masterplanned urban communities.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The demise of ‘Residential A’ (a mercy killing)

Oil on canvas
60.5cm x 60.5cm

Sue Beyer

For so long the bastion of the Great Australian Dream, the ‘Residential A’ zone has conveyed a sense of certitude that one’s house on a quarter-acre block would forever and a day be surrounded by the same and nothing else (save the local park and maybe a primary school). However, the notion of ‘Residential A’ is rapidly approaching its use-by date. A great tidal wave of demographic, economic and environmental change sweeping Australia into the post-globalised world is consigning it to grey-cardigan obsolescence. The day is rapidly approaching, when living in quiet, suburban obscurity will be the preserve of the rich who choose to be there, and the disadvantaged who can’t afford to leave.

For although it projects a relaxed and comfortable feel of endless summers with pools, backyard cricket and barbeques of a sense of unique ‘Australianness’ that forms part of the common cultural language of the Nation, the rapid evolution of our social structure is presenting us with new scenarios of how this culture could be expressed . A new role where the post-war suburb takes a diminished role in our collective consciousness. Chiefly amongst the forces that dictate the future of Australian cities is the car and the role it plays in shaping our personal mobility. Fast approaching is the day where the places you can walk to from your front door and those you can access by public transport become as important as places you can drive your $300-per week running cost car to, if not more so.

This would be a society where living in some far flung estate with the two hour return journey time at the end of the 10-hour day becomes the social equivalent of hell on earth. A place where replacing our fossil-fuel burning individual transport machines with ‘clean’ cars running on hydrogen fuel cells still won’t cope with the congestion costs from millions of unnecessary vehicle trips and the constant barrage of toll gates on yet-another underground traffic sewer.

We are heading down a transport cul-de-sac where we just cannot build our way out of the problem, as the economic, social and environmental costs of road infrastructure, built to ever more exacting specifications, spiral beyond price levels that the community is willing to pay. It hasn’t quite crashed and burned yet, but we’re tipping over the edge of the hill and the brakes are looking wonky.

The great modernist/rationalist experiment with modern urban living has reached maturity and the outcome doesn’t quite match the sales pitch. The freedom of individual mobility afforded by the car has become the means by which we imprison ourselves in our own suburban prisons, where the threshold of anxiety we impose on our doorstep holds back the faceless, monocultural ‘other’. There is a limited sense of the collective public domain in the suburbs, there is private space, but no sense of real belonging beyond the front gate. There is limited reason to walk out the front gate and down the street, because in most parts of most suburbs, all there is to walk to is other houses, and maybe a park, or a school. There may be a local shop, a bus stop or a train station if you are lucky. But there is oh-so much that can be accessed within a comfortable five minute drive, which is bearable at $1.20 a litre for petrol, but how will it stack up at $3.00 a litre, or even triple that price? Will there come a time when our transport costs exceed our mortgage repayments?

It is becoming obvious that a fundamental difference needs to be made in the way in which we organise our urban spaces, to bring ourselves into a situation where we don’t have to drive to make all of our basic daily trips. To do this, we need to tap into this vast reservoir of ‘Residential A’ land, so as to bring facilities and services closer to where people are going to be living. That is of course, unless there is a mass flight from the suburbs resembling some 'Day after Tomorrow' scenario.

As always, there is a balancing act and trade-offs are required. In order to gain the freedom from the motor car afforded by more local shops, employment opportunities, community facilities and the like, we also have to agree to have some more neighbours in our neighbourhoods. Neighbours who don’t necessarily live in single dwellings on quarter acre blocks. Instead, they may live in cottages and duplexes, small groups of townhouses or even apartments. These are after all residences, and why should they be excluded from a particular area if they are of a form and scale that is complementary to single dwellings?

As a general rule, we need to double the population of each suburb in existing ‘Residential A’ zoned areas to have at least a fighting chance of there being any hope for a sustainable future for these places. The old model of single dwelling households used to work fine back in the day when most households consisted of two parent families, typically with at least two, if not more children. This produced a density of around 50 persons per hectare (because even then, most blocks weren’t the mythical quarter-acre- more like 500-850 square metres), which is at the lower end of what is required to sustain any kind of local community infrastructure, be it a bus service that comes once an hour, a viable primary school population, a vibrant local shopping centre or sporting or social clubs.

Over the last 30 years or so, the population of established Residential A areas have been declining, as children leave home (and leave the area), partners die, and households are bought and sold, with incoming households progressively less likely to be couple with children households. This can be seen especially in older areas that predate the concept of ‘Residential A’, where former corner stores dot the landscape as their catchment of potential customers declined past the point of viability.

These trends progressively suck the life out of ‘Residential A’ areas and they can atrophy socially and economically, unless they are lucky enough to have attractive features that make them socially desirable, whether due to advantage of location, natural features or a quality building stock. These areas tend to gain in value and become more exclusive, as demand exceeds the static supply of housing stock.

For those suburbs that are less well endowed, the prospects are grimmer, being faced with the prospect of flat or declining house values and the gradual withdrawal of services as the population thins, and there is no reinvestment into the area through the renewal of housing stock. This also reflects in the infrastructure maintenance standards for these areas, which also declines as the roads and pipes age, but the rate base remains static, making them a drain on the public purse, unless rates and land taxes increase in line with rising maintenance costs.

Oddly enough, these seemingly different problems have a similar cure. For richer areas, the turnover of a proportion of housing stock to various forms of multiple dwelling can help maintain community by providing entry level accommodation in the area for fledgling households leaving the family nest, allowing them to stay in the area without necessarily relying on a financial helping hand from their parents. It also allows those who work in the retail, service industries and the essential services needed within the area to also live there. At the other end of the lifecycle, an increased dwelling mix allows empty nesters, who have lived in an area all or most of their lives to downsize whilst maintaining their social and community ties.

Important net environmental benefits are also gained from this approach, by enabling the consolidation of extisting areas that are under-developed, pressure can be taken off the urban fringe, with a consequential lessening of the effects of urban sprawl, such as loss of ecosystems, further damage to waterways, loss of greenspace as well as the environmental impacts of the private-car based transport patterns these places engender.

For the places without the value premium of the upmarket suburbs, these things also hold true, with the added value of allowing a greater proportion of people currently in housing stress in these areas due to a lack of accommodation opportunities (in total number or affordability bracket) to gain an affordable housing option. This new wave of building also has the effect of stimulating local demand to create grassroots retail and other employment opportunities.

A far greater mix of uses should therefore be allowed in conjunction with the greater housing choice needed for our ‘Residential A’ areas, apart from those which create obvious nuisance to residential amenity, however, we also need to be a little less precious about what residential amenity needs to be, so as to avoid the faceless back fence estates that plague our landscape. This includes more opportunities to work from home and for local businesses to establish in locations that enable our centres to grow, by designating active frontages to roads rather than tightly defined pockets of commercial use. This approach needs however to be defined in a manner which excludes the ugliness of the ribbon development that blights many of our major roads, and the incessant power tools of the home based trade business that is essentially light-industrial in nature.

It is certainly going to be a challenge defining and understanding what a post ‘Residential A’ city could look like, and how liveable it would be compared to the current trends. I believe that this could represent a better outcome for all of us who live in Australian cities, lost in the suburban nowhere land.